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Remaking Pulse, Bold, Impact: the defibrillator

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Pulse 2014 was a couple of months ago now, but given that I am on a plane to the next big IBM conference of the year, Impact 2014, I figured a quick write up of the last one would make a good preview for this one.

IBM is currently undertaking a major overhaul of its conference strategy as it rethinks its software brands, in terms of audience and subject matter, a change that was particularly stark at Pulse. What used to be a conference looking at managing traditional IT infrastructure (Tivoli), and latterly using IT management frameworks to manage physical infrastructure such as buildings, wind turbines and even cities (Maximo, Tririga) has morphed into something else.

Pulse is no longer an IT management conference, it’s a cloud infrastructure conference, which means it’s no longer just about ops, but also application development. Pulse is a conference explicitly seeking to change its audience; IBM evidently wants it to be more like Amazon Reinvent going forward.

Robert Le Blanc, Senior Vice President, Software and Cloud Solutions Group, got on stage for some scene-setting, using his favourite industry, automotive, as a backdrop – featuring IBM customer Continental Tires.

“Cloud is having a profound impact on the automotive industry. The first step is fully automated driving. ”

So far so good – managing cloud, managing driverless vehicles – that’s pretty close to Tivoli business as usual. But then Le Blanc changed up. “I am here to tell you the car will join the API economy.”

“Now we’re going to talk a little bit about the developer – every innovation has a developer behind it.”

And so, just like that, one of IBM’s top executives declared the primacy of the developer at an ops conference. Le Blanc kept using the word “bold” at the keynote (it was a conference theme), and in this case the content merited it. The positioning reminded me of Paul Maritz, former VMware CEO, standing up at VMworld in 2010, to tell his core customers they were in danger of being sidelined by developer choices.

Talking of developer choices, Le Blanc then showed off IBM BlueMix, a CloudFoundry-based multilanguage (polyglot) platform as a service (PaaS). Or rather, he introduced Jeff Lawson, CEO and cofounder of Twilio to do so, with a live coding demo, writing in Node.js. Live coding at smaller conferences is of course normal, but not so much at main tent presentations at huge shows like Pulse.

Twilio has built a name for itself as one of new breed of companies showing that you can build a substantial API-driven business. It was good to see Jeff on stage at Pulse.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about BlueMix is how clearly it demonstrates a new posture from IBM – leading with sample code written in Node.js rather than Java. IBM is very serious about Node.

That said, I couldn’t help but wonder how many customers in the audience had even heard of Node before that moment (like Maritz talking about Django). Ops people aren’t exactly dedicated followers of fashion. Some Tivoli customers would have been alienated by the pitch, but IBM gave them some more traditional systems management red meat on day two – with new cloud-based monitoring and management tools, for example.

IBM is taking some bold steps, showing a willingness to challenge its customers, and a much stronger opinion about how systems should be designed and managed. The change is particularly welcome, because IBM customers need to get with the program.

The tech industry is currently rather stretched, in that enterprise customers are largely well behind both Web and Software companies in terms of how they build and manage infrastructure. But as software continues to eat the world the status quo is no longer an option. IBM needs to take its customers on a journey, the same painful journey it is making.

Le Blanc said that in product development “we’re going from 18 month development cycles to 18 week cycles.”

Making that change is hard. But IBM customers need to do the same thing. Enterprises need to reboot – to adopt agile programming, continuous deployment, DevOps, NoSQL, and so on. Cloud will be the context in which they do so. Thus the new Pulse.

It’s worth noting that while IBM Pulse is becoming less of an operations conference, Amazon Reinvent is becoming less a developer show, and more of a business and IT operations conference.

Before wrapping up I also wanted to mention IBM’s developer conference within a conference – [email protected] It was a cool little show, with tasty healthy food, barista coffee on tap, and solid technical content. However it still felt a bit of a bolt on – notably because the location, Hakkasan, was a long walk through the casino from the rest of the conference. It will be interesting to see how [email protected] compares.

Persuading developers to come to Vegas, or their employers to send them, is not easy for most vendors. We’re going to see all the tech leviathans doing more, smaller, shows, going to where the developers are. But the big shows will also need to up their game to appeal to new audiences.

Who knows – maybe this week at Impact Robert Le Blanc will do the live coding demo himself.

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